IRVING, Texas — Admiral Jonas H. Ingram, a key figure in World War II and then a director of athletics at Annapolis, once observed, “The closest thing to war in time of peace is football.”
The Dallas Cowboys know the feeling. And it’s not just a physical feeling. After dropping back to .500 with yet another come-from-ahead loss, this one a 31-30 thriller Sunday in Detroit, the Cowboys’ greatest issues are now emotional. They are now mental. This is now psychological warfare involving self-doubt.
In other words, the Cowboys are now engaged in a battle… with themselves.
“We didn’t do what we needed to do to win the ballgame, period,” coach Jason Garrett said. “We have to live with that. We look ourselves in the mirror. It starts with me, coaching staff, every player in that locker room has to do better.”
But when the Cowboys look at their reflection, it is human nature for self-doubt to stare unblinkingly back at them.
Self-doubt creeps in when your defensive failure defies the odds. In the last three seasons, 56 teams have been plus-four in turnover margin in a game. Dallas is one of the two teams that have lost. Since the 1970 merger, 95 percent of teams with that advantage win the game, making this failure – even as the Cowboys defense is No. 2 in the NFL in takeaways — a historic one.
Self-doubt creeps in when the offensive answers you were so confident in turn out to be wrong. In the last three weeks (while noting Dallas’ 2-1 record in those games), the Cowboys have opposed the No. 32-ranked defense in the NFL (Redskins), then the No. 32 again (Eagles) and then the 31st-ranked (Lions). And yet the Tony Romo-led offense has managed just an average of 283 yards per game.
That’s defense. That’s offense. Overall picture?
Of the Cowboys’ four losses, in three of them they’ve had double-digit leads and three of them have come by a total of five points. You can tell yourself that means you are “close,” and the Cowboys are doing that.
“We have to learn from that experience and find a way to finish the game,” Garrett said. “We were in great position to win that game…”
Yes, yes, you can tell yourself that and you must. But this now becomes more than just issues of play-calling and performance. This is about your inner voice steering you in the right direction… and maybe having to outshout all the outer voices. For instance…
Ex-Cowboy legend Deion Sanders’ network-perch evaluation of the loss in Detroit, featuring a pair of sideline rage-a-thons from Dez Bryant?
“He is the only guy on that team that plays with that kind of passion,” Deion said on NFL Network. “The only guy.”
Ex-Cowboy legend Mike Ditka’s network-perch evaluation of the loss in Detroit, again focusing on Dez?
“I played for Coach Halas and Coach Landry,” Ditka said on ESPN. “I wouldn’t have had a uniform, if I would have done that. Coach Lombardi wouldn’t (let you have) a uniform. You’d be gone.”
So Deion – who wore his “Me-First” persona on his high-priced sleeve as a player — basically believes the Cowboys should be more outwardly team-oriented. And Ditka – one of the most insanely rambunctious sideline presences in sports history – believes rambunctiousness is unacceptable?
Said Romo in wise explanation of Bryant’s outbursts: “Some guys are emotional during games. Others keep it in a little bit. It’s what helps him play good. There will be some stories about it, I’m sure, but everyone in the locker room knows there is nothing to it. It’s not like this guy is being deceitful or trying to do something that helps himself. He literally just cares about winning.”
And from Dez: “I love this game. I love my teammates. Don’t get it twisted. That’s what it is. It’s going to forever remain the same. It started in Pop Warner, went to middle school, went to high school, went to college, and it’s here. It’s going to stay that way. It won’t change.”
Bryant almost certainly also cared about competing on a level playing field with Lions superstar Calvin Johnson. Dez caught two TD passes but “Megatron” was other-worldly with 14 receptions for 329 yards in leading Detroit back from a 10-point deficit with just over six minutes remaining in the game.
There is history in those numbers, too. Yet it seems the Cowboys have grown accustomed to being involved in such events.
“Our football team,” Romo said, “has been through this.”
Been there, done that, finished .500.
So you begin to second-guess yourself. With 90 seconds left, the Cowboys defense earned a 4-and-out stop at the Detroit 31. That should’ve been the ender; Dallas, up three points, had options, one of which was to essentially run out the clock. That was the choice. Two running plays netted little, but forced Detroit to expend its final two timeouts. On third down, the Cowboys could’ve taken a knee and burned off another 40 seconds. Or, run the ball and get nine-or-so yards?
Phillip Tanner did exactly that. But left tackle Tyron Smith was detected for holding. Detroit declined the penalty to save time, but that wasn’t the killer; the flag stopped the clock, Smith’s penalty basically granting the Lions a freebie timeout.
Dallas kicked the field goal for the six-point lead. But instead of Detroit needing to drive the length of the field in 20 seconds, they had 62 seconds. More Calvin and QB Matt Stafford’s clever bluffing of his way into the end zone (faking a clock-stopping spike and instead reaching the ball in against the unsuspecting Cowboys) made the Lions look intellectually gifted.
And the mental gifts of the Cowboys right now?
Admiral Ingram was right about the war-like challenges of football. But one of his contemporaries, “Pogo” cartoonist/satirist Walt Kelly, is just as correct in pinpointing the human condition that now afflicts the embattled Cowboys. As Kelly famously wrote: